Zinedine Zidane taught us that coaching Real Madrid is a lot more than tactics

MALAGA, SPAIN - MAY 21: Zinedine Zidane, Manager of Real Madrid celebrates with Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid after being crowned champions following the La Liga match between Malaga and Real Madrid at La Rosaleda Stadium on May 21, 2017 in Malaga, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
MALAGA, SPAIN - MAY 21: Zinedine Zidane, Manager of Real Madrid celebrates with Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid after being crowned champions following the La Liga match between Malaga and Real Madrid at La Rosaleda Stadium on May 21, 2017 in Malaga, Spain. (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images) /
(Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images) /

Ever since his appointment as coach to Real Madrid‘s first team, Zinedine Zidane has been considered by many as a “rookie” in the coaching world. Nevertheless, in just a year and a half, he managed to win one Champions League title, with the possibility of another coming soon. He also won last year’s UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup. Moreover, he won the badly missed La Liga trophy. The results are in: Zidane is far from an amateur coach. So, what’s the secret to Zidane’s magic? Ahmed Genina tells you what exactly it is that gives Zidane that special touch.

Haters Gonna Hate

Those who criticize Zidane make such claims on the basis that Zizou insists on keeping Casemiro as a crucial part of the starting 11, despite the Brazilian’s offensive limitations. He also unconditionally prefers his countryman, Karim Benzema, at striker even though Alvaro Morata scored more goals than the Frenchman in La Liga, in fewer minutes.

Moreover, he refuses to give bigger roles to players like James Rodriguez or Isco, unless absolutely necessary. It has reached the point where the attacking midfield duo has become constantly linked with departures away from Madrid, especially the Columbian. Furthermore, he depends heavily on wide play and crosses, despite having two midfield masterminds like Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.

A Trophy is a Trophy after all

When we take a closer look, Zidane has delivered. He won La Liga. Not only that, but he also managed to dismantle Atletico Madrid in the Champions League (again). It even took heavenly heroics from Lionel Messi for FC Barcelona to get a last minute win in the Bernabeu, against a 10-man Los Blancos.

Cross Cross Cross!

When Zidane was appointed in January 2016 as Real Madrid coach, many expected to see the return of the “beautiful football” Real Madrid played under Ancelotti in 2014-15.

What happened however, was that he employed a counter attacking system similar to the one Ancelotti used in 2013-14. The system depended on absorbing a wave of attack, only to follow it by a counter attack that catches the opposition defense off guard. It played into Real’s advantage. Pacey wingers like Ronaldo and Bale were his main keys. Unfortunately, that system only worked when the scoreline favored Los Blancos.

When the team was late on the scoreline, Zizou employed the simplest tactic used to play against a team that parks the bus: crossing. With that mindset, Real won La Un Decima and lost La Liga with one point difference between them and Barcelona.

(Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images) /

Crosses were here to stay for a second season

Come September 2016, football fans and pundits expected that Zidane would insert possession and direct play as part of The Royal Whites’ game. He had a full preseason to start planning how to implement his ideas.

Casemiro kept his spot reserved in the starting 11. James stayed as a squad rotation player. Real still depended heavily on crosses.

It became a frustrating sight for the fans. Los Blancos were not not making the best out of their squad (according to the fans). Also the team struggled in numerous matches due to depending solely on that tactic.

Aura and Motivation

If we look at how Zidane managed the team, especially in his early days, I think there is no room for argument that Zidane’s management of the player’s psychological state is critical to how this team went from fighting for dignity under Benitez to La Undecima winners under Zidane in just six months.

One thing that all the players have agreed upon is that there is that “Aura” they feel around Zizou. Zidane’s legendary status simply enforces almost everyone who’s part of the game to respect him and love him, and in Real Madrid’s case, follow him!

The players’ insane will to follow his instructions was and is still unrivaled. That undying belief in victory until the referee blows his final whistle (with Ramos taking much of the spotlight) is a special phenomenon. It can’t be stressed enough how vital it is that the Frenchman deeply rooted the “Juanito spirit” within this Madrid squad since day one.

Of course, spirits and motivation are only a fraction of the weapons a manager needs to win. Zidane may not have introduced revolutionary tactics, but he did something that proved more effective for The Royal Whites.

Character and Continuity

Zidane searched NOT for a solution that works instantly like a charm (which doesn’t exist by the way). Instead, he simply set his mind to a certain style of play which plays to the team’s strengths and masks their weaknesses.

Offensively, Zidane’s style play depends on width to deliver the ball into the box when the opposition is dropping deep. When the opposition presses high, counter attacks are the way to go.

Defensively, the team employs a low block in order to defend in numbers. This allows easy compensation for the mistakes made by either defenders or midfielders.

Zidane simply stuck to this character, and had total confidence in the players. Even when that way didn’t work flawlessly, he still insisted on it and believed in it. He honed that style of play through continuity, which allowed the team to perfect what they can already do.

He basically followed the famous quote once told by the legendary late martial artist, Bruce Lee:

"I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times."

When the team perfected that style, Zidane slowly implemented simple forms of counter pressing and creating chances from the center. The latter was very obvious in the Club World Cup.

For those interested in the former (counter-pressing), rewatch Los Blancos’s matches against Atletico Madrid in 2017. One of the reasons why Real dominated these matches was that they (Real Madrid) employed a counter-pressing system in order to nullify Atleti’s attacks as soon as they started to materialize.

Rotations were crucial

Carlo Ancelotti’s 2014-15 squad won 22 matches in a row, only to finish the season trophy-less!

It had a star-studded starting 11. Unfortunately, it had unreliable substitutes. Ancelotti’s over-reliance on the once de gala didn’t help either.

More from The Real Champs

This was the ultimate sign to Perez that he can’t just sign 11 Galacticos. He also has to bring reliable substitutes to complement them. That’s where players like Lucas Vasquez, Mateo Kovacic, Marco Asensio, Morata, and even Isco, come in handy.

Truth is: La Liga is a marathon, not an Olympic sprint. Consistency and endurance are more important than maximum strength. This was very obvious in how the matches with Atletico and Barca went, beating Atleti away and drawing at home.

Against Barcelona, a drew away and a loss at home. Not the most flashy way to dominate Spain, but it got the job done. In the end, history will remember Real Madrid as 2016-17 Liga winners.

Only die hard Cules would remember that Messi’s 500th goal was a last-minute winner in El Clasico. Barcelona won the match. Real Madrid won the trophy.